A SCOTTISH Government minister with responsibility for children this week declared a Ross-shire special school “not fit for purpose” amid growing demands for “years of neglect” to be put right.
Maree Todd, who is also a Ross-shire-based MSP, made her remarks after visiting St Clement’s in Dingwall ahead of a crunch council meeting to set a capital budget which is being dramatically slashed to save money.
Ms Todd has now written to Highland Council urging it to take action “as a matter of priority”.
The school was also visited on Monday by local ward councillors who have come under increasing pressure to force through improvements.
Ms Todd said: “St Clement’s school caters for some of the most vulnerable pupils in Ross-shire. At the request of St Clement’s parent council I visited the school this week to see for myself what condition it is in.
“It was clear very quickly that the school is in a poor state of repair and, frankly, not fit for purpose. There are a number of obvious issues as you walk around the school. It’s lacking many basic facilities. This is an old Victorian building and there are clearly access difficulties for anyone who might be in a wheelchair. At the moment one of the blocks is closed because there isn’t any heating.
“I have written to Highland Council about my visit and I will urge them to make St Clement’s school a matter of priority. It is of course up to local authorities to bring forward capital spending plans. Thus far, Highland Council has not prioritised St Clement’s school in its capital spending plans. I hope it will consider including it in the near future.
“All children have a right to a good quality education and these children in particular, who are disadvantaged and vulnerable, deserve our support to allow them to not only fulfil, but to exceed their potential. The staff at St Clement’s School do an immense job under the circumstances.”
Parent council member Chrystina Ferguson, who met Ms Todd during the visit, welcomed her intervention but said that following a meeting with councillors this week, they had still not received confirmation about funds for a new school. She added: “It is very clear that Highland Council has done nothing, including exploring possible sites, for years and has been quite content to leave our children in appalling conditions”.
She said “dozens and dozens” of children in the Highlands either attended school part-time or not at all due to a lack of support.
She added: “While local councillors remain supportive and we are heartened by interest shown from MSPs Maree Todd and Kate Forbes, the Parent Council has contacted all relevant councillors and education officials with very little response which makes us question their interest in our children’s needs.
“We know Highland Council receives pupil equity funding and attainment funding and an extra £7.5 million from discussions with the Scottish Government and the Greens and that there is no financial, legal or moral reason why our children have gone so long in such appalling conditions nor any such reason why this detrimental situation should be allowed to continue.
“Year on year inspections cite the school as poor/inadequate – why is this not addressed? Who, year on year, has made the decision to omit St Clement’s from the budget despite being fully aware of the conditions and the detrimental impact it has on the children?”
Another parent, Joanna Dymock, who lobbied councillors ahead of a recent budget-setting meeting, said: “My son has been at the school for five or six years. They say the same thing every time. They come around, look shocked and we never get a firm commitment. I would like an unequivocal commitment to a new school sooner rather than later. These children have not got a voice. For the sake of our children, we need to keep the pressure on.”
Budget leader Alister Mackinnon, a local ward councillor, said he would recommend the school be included in the capital plan and acknowledged it was “probably one of the worst school buildings in the Highland Council area”.
Another local councillor, Graham Mackenzie, former rector of Dingwall Academy, said it was “way beyond time” for action.
Highland Council is due to hold a special meeting on its £500 million capital plan this week.